Voters cast their ballots in South Africa's 2009 election at Nkandla, north of Durban, April 22, 2009. South Africans voted on Wednesday in an election that poses the toughest challenge to the African National Congress since the end of apartheid and could weaken its overwhelming dominance in parliament. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA POLITICS ELECTIONS)

First there were bribes and then leaders chased money wherever it went – but enough is enough, writes Horst Kleinschmidt.

At a recent book launch a friend and MK veteran whispered to me: “I agree with the author’s criticism of the ANC. We are all disappointed. Secretly we hope the ANC will get only 50 percent.”

Later, as we shared a drink, I asked what he would do to reduce the ANC majority.

His answer revealed the classic tragedy countless fighters and activists against apartheid now feel: much was achieved but, equally, we squandered the opportunity to do what we could have achieved in the 20 years of democracy since 1994.

Instead of building towards a capable, educated and more egalitarian society, we created an elite ensconcing itself against attack behind an increasing arsenal of authoritarian measures.

“I love the ANC, it is my home,” my friend said. “It freed me from the world that condemned me as a black man in the apartheid state. I gave my life for the ANC.”

My friend is retired and grey-haired. He and his wife live in a modest home. We concur on Marikana and Nkandla and agree that the country we fought for is now on the wrong path. The police are used to repress the downtrodden and the rulers loot the national treasury.

When we parted, he said with a wry smile: “I sleep well at night. I fought for my country and my people. I can tell my children I fought for dignity and equality, and I never took something I was not entitled to.” After a pause, he added: “I still feel I must vote for the ANC.”

My friend belongs to a whispering legion of loyal and good ANC people. He cannot get himself to vote for a party that did not fight in the trenches like the ANC did. But he is profoundly disappointed and angry.

He feels betrayed by the people who yesterday, like him, had nothing. He is on first-name terms with those “at the top”, but he’s been dropped.

The password to be part of “them” is to have money, dress fashionably, frequent expensive hotels and to have “connections”.

Like him, I am constantly on the look-out for decent and modest good people in the ANC to reform, to rebuild and to return the organisation to its principles and its roots.

In exile my erstwhile comrades, now part of the new and insulated elite, received 14 Zambian kwacha a month from the ANC, enough to buy two beers. For the rest they survived on rations and wore solidarity clothing from the USSR and German Democratic Republic. I recall Oliver Tambo wearing these unfashionable shirts and pants when he visited London. But all this changed so rapidly.

Even five years into democracy, how do you acquire properties, drive fancy cars and live the high life? Were we left behind? No. They deserted us and the cause.

How could this happen? The new elite did not make a beeline to loot the national treasury. In the first flurry of power such opportunities hardly existed. The reason for our malaise has to be found elsewhere.

It was in 1996 while waiting in vain for top ANC honchos to attend his cocktail party that an executive from Rand Coal, racist, but determined to keep his hand on the tiller of his company, sighed and said: “These chaps can’t do the job (of governing) – fortunately the country is rich enough to afford them.” Brimming with hostility, I noted his comment in my diary.

The first wave of bribes after 1994 were splashed on those ANC leaders who lacked moral fibre and could be bent easily. The super rich, who made their money during apartheid, gave an array of ANC leaders farms, houses, money, shares and much else.

Those people, who remain super rich, have as much to answer for as the spineless leaders in the ANC. The bribes divided the ANC.

Once the appetite for money was whetted, political power opened the doors to more money. Nkandla is merely the worst example of this.

It is a shame that so many ANC leaders – even worse, supposed Communist party leaders – have chosen greed and thereby abandoned the needy. The old and the new super rich will not allow an egalitarian society. Instead they rely on social grants and patronage to keep the social glue from melting.

A big storm is brewing. Filthy riches and abject poverty have made South Africa the most divided society in the world. The ANC leaders, for reasons they know all to well, walked into a trap.

But my friend at the book launch cannot bring himself to vote for the opposition DA.

Noziziwe Madlala-Routledge and Ronnie Kasrils, with other good people, sought to reform the ANC from within. When this foundered, the Vukani! Sidikiwe! Vote No! campaign provided a welcome alternative.

Fed-up ANC loyalists can now look up to trusted, modest-living leaders with whom they were once in the trenches. They can now stomach the choice to either spoil their vote or to vote for a small party. The one party my friend is not inclined to vote for is the DA. For now, he and I see fat cats there – maybe the same fat cats in whose pockets the ANC elite are.

We must build bridges for the good people in the ANC to find the courage to say Vukani! (Wake up!) Sidikiwe! (We are fed up!) Vote No!

* Horst Kleinschmidt, a former deputy-director general of environmental affairs, worked for the Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) in London during apartheid. IDAF provided financial support, of necessity in secret, to activists needing legal aid, and to their families.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Indepedent Newspapers

Cape Argus